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On Thursday, September 4, the Transformers fan who was accused of impersonating a police officer was vindicated after Magistrate Richard Bloom dismissed the case against him during a brief hearing at Quincy District Court.
Zhang Zhijun, a 23-year-old civil engineer from Braintree, received a summons last month after he was stopped by police for driving around in a 2010 Maserati he had decorated to look like Barricade, a character from the Transformers.
The vehicle bears some resemblance to a police cruiser, but says “Decepticons” – the name for the villainous, shapeshifting, alien robots from the Transformers universe – where most cruisers would have the name of the police department. The vehicle also says “to punish and enslave” in lieu of the usual police motto, “to serve and protect.” The vehicle has no lights or sirens on it that could be used to pull motorists over.
Zhijun would have faced up to a year in jail and a $400 fine if the case went before a jury and he was convicted.
Lieutenant Kevin Ware, the police prosecutor, read from the police report, which describes how Officer Blake Holt pulled Zhijun over because he was not aware of the Braintree police having any Maseratis. Ware said the vehicle had stickers on it that said “Police” and “Emergency 9-1-1 Response.”
“It would be very hard for the public to make a differentiation” between the Maserati and a police cruiser, Ware said.
Ware said Zhijun told police that he was doing them a favor because people slowed down when they saw his Maserati, but this claim was disputed by the defense and Bloom said there was no evidence for it.
Ware insisted that allowing Zhijun to drive around in his Maserati had the “potential to go seriously wrong” and alluded to a kidnapping in Avon that he said was perpetrated by someone pretending to be a police officer.
Ware conceded that Zhijun had not directly represented himself as a police officer to anyone, but suggested that the police had “intercepted” him before he was able to.
Ware said Zhijun was doing a “disservice” to the people of Braintree by driving around with a “disguise” on. He said he was surprised someone with such a high level of education displayed a “lack of common sense.”
At one point during the hearing, Zhijun said he had removed some of the stickers that police had a problem with from the vehicle and Ware said this showed “consciousness of guilt,” but Bloom bluntly told him that wasn't a valid conclusion.
Russell Matson,* the attorney representing Zhijun, said that his client was being needlessly dragged into court over an “art project.”
Matson pointed to the statute which Zhijun was accused of violating, which states that it only applies to someone who “falsely assumes or pretends” to be a police officer and “acts as such or requires a person to aid or assist him in a matter pertaining to the duty of such officer.”
Matson said Zhijun was not accused of misrepresenting himself as a police officer to anyone or of attempting to exercise any police powers, so the law was not applicable.
Matson pointed out that police departments auction off retired police cruisers to the public. He also said that if the law was interpreted the way the police wanted it to be, people could be arrested for wearing police costumes on Halloween.
Bloom seemed amused by the case despite not being familiar with the Transformers. He laughed when he looked at the pictures of the Maserati, saying “This is unbelievable.”
At one point, Bloom asked Zhijun how much he paid for the car. Zhijun said he bought it second-hand for about $80,000.
Ultimately, he agreed with Matson that the law had not been violated. “The key word in the statute is 'acts,'” Bloom said.
Still, Bloom cautioned Zhijun, saying people might get concerned if they saw Maserati and report it to the police. "He's gonna have himself a problem," Bloom said.
“The clerk magistrate decided that [Zhijun] was not a threat to public safety, which I think was the right decision,” Matson said outside the courthouse. “It was pretty clear that there was no violation of the statute here.”
“There was no harm here. It was a lot of wasted time and energy and I think this really ran the risk of the police looking very silly,” Matson said.
But it would probably be fair to say that the police looked worse than silly throughout this case.
Ware, for instance, displayed an extreme lack of professionalism during the court hearing. At one point, he interrupted his presentation to yell at a man sitting in the gallery and demanded that he leave the courtroom, accusing him of talking. The man responded that all he had done was cough. Bloom attempted to calm Ware down and told the man that he could stay.
Last week, when we went to the Braintree police station with a camera to ask about the Transformers case, Lieutenant Karen MacAleese told us we didn't have the right to record her voice without consent. In reality, there is no law in Massachusetts that makes it illegal to record anyone without their consent and the First Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled multiple times that people have a clearly established First Amendment right to record police and other public officials.
MacAleese refused to tell us her name or show us her police ID card (as required by state law). She was not wearing a badge or name tag when she spoke to us. We later determined her identity by calling the police department.
The Transformers case isn’t the first controversy the Braintree police have found themselves in the midst of in the past few weeks. Last month, Cape Cop Times reported that Braintree police had arrested a medical marijuana patient, taken cash and medicine from him, and refused to give it back after being ordered to by a judge.
Instead of harassing Transformers fans, shaking down medical marijuana patients, and making up fake laws to try to intimidate journalists, the Braintree police should focus their limited time and resources on real problems plaguing their community such as unsolved murders.
The Braintree police shouldn't be lecturing anyone about common sense until they can show a bit more of it themselves.
Watch our previous video about this story here:
*Disclosure: The Bay State Examiner has published writing by Russell Matson in the past.
Last Friday, Quincy resident Khairullozhon Matanov was arrested at his apartment by a SWAT team and several FBI agents as part of the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. According to The Boston Globe:
Matanov was charged with obstruction of justice by destruction, alteration, and falsification of records or documents in a federal investigation, which carries a punishment of up to 20 years in prison. He was also charged with three counts of making false statements to agents in a terrorism investigation, each of which carries a punishment of up to eight years in prison.
Matanov, a friend of the Tsarnaevs, is accused of lying to investigators and deleting files from his computer. There are no allegations that he played a role in the bombing.
The government had been conducting aerial surveillance of Matanov since shortly after the bombing and had interviewed him a number of times over the past year before deciding to charge him.
One interesting aspect of this story that hasn't gotten enough attention is the government's decision to conduct a forced-entry raid on Matanov's home when they arrested him. As Kade Crockford of the Privacy SOS blog writes, "The FBI spent considerable resources monitoring Matanov from the sky and physically at his apartment for over a year, but despite officials’ familiarity with him and his home, they sent a SWAT team to break down his door at four in the morning to arrest him."
The crimes Matanov is accused of are all nonviolent. Even if Matanov lied to investigators and deleted relevant information from his computer, it sounds as though he was otherwise cooperative, so what was the point of breaking down his door at 4 A.M. and freaking out his neighbors?
Was it to intimidate Matanov? Or was it a piece of theater to make Matanov seem scarier to the public than he really is?
Last June, a Massachusetts state police officer fatally shot a man suffering from mental illness. Wilfredo Justiniano Jr., who suffered from schizophrenia, was killed by Trooper Stephen Walker on Route 28 in Quincy. The Bay State Examiner obtained a report on the shooting that state police submitted to the Norfolk District Attorney's Office by making a public records request. We are publishing the report as part of an effort to bring more transparency to police shootings in Massachusetts.
Although a number of newspapers and TV news programs reported on the shooting, we are not aware of any that have published the full report. In fact, after the district attorney announced his findings about the shooting, many publications -- The Boston Globe, The Patriot Ledger, The Standard-Times, and WCVB, for example -- did not base their accounts on the full report. Instead, they relied on a press release issued by the Norfolk County District Attorney's Office that never mentions the name of the police officer who killed Justiniano. (The Globe did end up publishing an article that names the officer, but not until January of this year.)
The full 11-page report was written by Detective Lieutenant Kevin P. Shea of the Massachusetts State Police just days after the shooting. It describes the state police investigation and does not offer an opinion on whether the shooting was justified.
Numerous parts of the report were redacted by the district attorney's office, including all the text on page eight and more than half the text of page nine.
According to the report, a witness saw Justiniano drive erratically, then exit his vehicle and wave his arms around while "speaking in an unknown dialect." She called 911 in an attempt to get him medical attention.
Trooper Walker was dispatched to the scene to help Justiniano. Walker "immediately called for a backup because he said he had a bad feeling about the situation." Walker then exited his vehicle without waiting for backup to arrive.
Justiniano saw Walker, then threatened to kill him, and attacked him with a pen. Walker pepper sprayed Justiniano, but it didn't stop him and ended up backfiring when the wind blew some of the spray into Walker's eyes. When Justiniano refused to stop attacking Walker, he shot him once. Justiniano continued to attack Walker, so he shot him a second time.
After Justiano had been shot, backup arrived. The report claims that Justiniano continued fighting and it took five police officers and two firefighters to handcuff him.
After the shooting, Justiniano was taken to a hospital where he was declared dead.
In August, Norfolk County District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey said he determined that the shooting was justified.
"The eye-witness accounts of civilian, fire and police witnesses, supported by significant physical and ballistics evidence, leave no room for doubt. The action of this Massachusetts State Police trooper was in self-defense and was justified as a matter of law," Morrissey was quoted as saying in his press release.
After the district attorney's findings were announced, Ilyas J. Rona, the attorney representing Justiniano's family, issued the following statement:
We are disappointed, but not surprised, with the DA's press release, as nearly every investigation of a police officer's use of deadly force results in a finding of justification.
The family is heartbroken by the loss of Wilfredo. What we know for certain is that shortly after a call for a medical emergency, a person in distress was shot and killed.
Given the magnitude of this tragedy, we find the DA's conclusion that there is 'no room for doubt' an unfortunately confident statement. This tragedy should not be used as a means to justify the use of deadly force against a mentally ill man, but as an opportunity to ensure that police are equipped to prevent such tragedies in the first place. We welcome anyone with information that could help us achieve this goal to come forward.
Justiniano’s younger sister, Damaris Justiniano, told The Boston Globe that she hoped the state police would start using less lethal weapon like Tasers and implement better training for dealing with people suffering from mental illness.
Rona, the family’s attorney, told the Globe that he found inconsistencies in witness statements, although he did not provide any specific examples.
The Bay State Examiner requested transcripts of the interviews that state police conducted with witnesses so that we could review them for potential inconsistencies. The Examiner also requested copies of several photographs that are alluded to in the report. The Norfolk District Attorney said they would charge a $350 fee for the documents. (The DA's office said it would take one of their employees 10 hours to compile the documents at a charge of $32 per hour. They said the documents would be burned onto 3 CDs at a cost of $10 per CD.) Due to our limited budget, we opted not to pay for the documents at this time.
The Examiner contacted Rona by email to ask if he was willing to provide copies of the transcripts at no charge, but he did not respond.
Justiniano was one of 12 people shot to death by police in Massachusetts last year.
In total, police fatally shot 73 people in Massachusetts between 2002 and 2013. In every single case, prosecutors ultimately determined that the shootings were justified according to a recent report by the magazine CommonWealth.